Robert Falls says he’s not much for making long-range plans. But as artistic director of Chicago’s Goodman Theatre—to pinch from Stephen Sondheim—he’s been “putting it together piece by piece” quite successfully for 30 years. He forged a dynamic relationship with playwright August Wilson, made a major commitment to the work of Eugene O’Neill (his renditions Long Day’s Journey Into Night in 2003 won a Tony Award and Drama Desk for Best Revival of a Play and him a Drama Desk Award for direction), fashioned a team of artistic associates that includes director Mary Zimmerman and playwright Rebecca Gilman, and—in partnership with executive director, Roche Schulfer—propelled the Goodman to the top ranks of the nation’s regional theatres, winning the Tony Award for Regional Theatre in 1992. “Running the theatre in collaboration with Roche is a big part of what I do,” he says of the house that premiered The Light in the Piazza, Chinglish, and this season’s War Paint, “but ultimately, I still look at myself as someone who goes into a rehearsal room and tries to make a play.”
Falls has long welcomed others to do the same. In his early years, he invited Chicago directors Frank Galati and Michael Maggio onboard. ‘That was very successful, but the work reflected the taste of three white men,” he remarks. Not content to slot one-off plays to demonstrate a commitment to diversity, Falls set out to remedy the situation by asking established minority artists, Chuck Smith and Henry Godinez, to join his team of artistic associates. “They bring a point of view and perspective that I am simply not going to bring because of who I am,” states Falls.
When Falls first arrived at the Goodman from Chicago’s tiny Wisdom Bridge Theatre, his initial ambition was to bring the rude energy manifested in a work by someone like David Mamet to the plays of Ibsen or Tennessee Williams. Falls own productions have often been bold, from an almost cinematic King Lear (starring Stacy Keach) to an adaptation of Roberto Bolaño’s densely sprawling novel 2666, created in collaboration with director Seth Bockley. But over the past several years, he has found himself increasingly engaged with a different focus in his work. “It really began in 201o when I did The Seagull,” he explains, “with a sense of me turning inwards as a director, and working in a different way with actors on a more intimate scale. It’s sort of a returning to Russian Stanislavski and the primary place of the actor, which of course sounds obvious. But the primacy of the actor has become more important to me, not just in a work of Chekhov or Rebecca Gilman, but also in a play by Shakespeare.”
For any shift in his own creative approach, for all the ways the Goodman has grown under his artistic leadership, Falls feels the organization is doing what it has always done on his watch: presenting classic plays and new work, while developing and celebrating the American musical, such as the recent War Paint, starring Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole. “I’m as surprised as anyone that it’s been 30 years,” he admits. “I’m just so extraordinary fortunate to have a home, to have a genuine artistic home.”